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Will heads roll? Ministerial standards and Stuart Robert

Labor has accused Stuart Robert of breaching ministerial guidelines by misusing public office. AAP/Mick Tsikas

Will heads roll? Ministerial standards and Stuart Robert

Labor has accused Stuart Robert of breaching ministerial guidelines by misusing public office. AAP/Mick Tsikas

Human Services Minister Stuart Robert continues to face questions about a 2014 trip to China, where he met senior Chinese government officials and attended the signing of a mining deal involving his close friend and major Liberal Party donor, Paul Marks, and Chinese company Minmetals.

Minmetals issued a press release trumpeting the involvement of Robert – then assistant minister for defence. Although Robert has claimed this was a private trip, the press release said he was at the signing ceremony “on behalf of the Australian Department of Defence”. Robert owns shares in companies linked to Marks.

The opposition has accused Robert of breaching ministerial guidelines by misusing public office.

While Robert asserted that he “acted appropriately”, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has asked the secretary of his department, Martin Parkinson, to report on whether Robert breached the ministerial standards.

So, what are the ministerial standards?

Ministerial standards set out the standards of conduct expected of ministers. The principle underlying the standards is that ministers should uphold the public’s trust as they wield a great deal of power deriving from their public office.

Turnbull’s Statement of Ministerial Standards proclaims:

Ministers and assistant ministers are entrusted with the conduct of public business and must act in a manner that is consistent with the highest standards of integrity and propriety.

The standards prevent ministers from giving advice or assistance to private enterprises in their official capacity as ministers – other than in a disinterested manner. Ministers must also avoid conflicts of interest arising from their shareholdings.

Under the standards, ministers must resign if they are convicted of a criminal offence or if the prime minister finds that they have breached the standards in a substantive and material way.

In 1998, John Howard became the first prime minister to establish a ministerial guide. Breaches of Howard’s A Guide on Key Elements of Ministerial Responsibility led to six ministerial resignations.

When Kevin Rudd came into office, he released new Standards of Ministerial Ethics. Rudd’s standards imposed stronger obligations on ministers, including new rules on dealing with lobbyists. Under Rudd, one minister – Joel Fitzgibbon – resigned for breaching the standards.

Julia Gillard adopted similar ministerial standards, but there were no resignations.

In 2013, Tony Abbott issued a Statement of Ministerial Standards. These had more stringent requirements, forbidding ministers from employing family members in their ministerial or electorate offices. In Abbott’s time in office, an assistant minister – Arthur Sinodinos – stood aside pending investigations by a state anti-corruption body.

There has already been one ministerial resignation and one minister standing aside on Turnbull’s watch. Turnbull found that Cities Minister Jamie Briggs’ behaviour on an overseas trip breached the ministerial standards and “did not live up to the standard required of ministers”, prompting Briggs’ resignation.

Special Minister of State Mal Brough stepped aside pending the outcome of a police investigation into his alleged role in copying the diaries of former Speaker Peter Slipper.

Ministerial standards are one element of an interlocking ministerial integrity system involving the operation of criminal laws and a lobbying code of conduct, alongside parliamentary and ombudsman scrutiny.

Are they effective?

The prime minister promotes and enforces ministerial standards. Turnbull’s standards give him the power to decide whether a minister should stand aside if the minister is officially investigated for illegal or improper conduct.

The prime minister can change the standards at any time. Ministerial standards do not have any legal effect and cannot be enforced in a court.

Prime ministerial enforcement of ministerial standards has been patchy. Whether a minister resigns depends on the prime minister of the day and if there is media furore and public outrage over an issue. This will likely determine if Robert becomes the next Turnbull minister to fall on his sword.

The standards are an important guide that codifies what we expect of ministers as holders of public office. But, in the end, politics decides which ministers stand and which fall.